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Songbirds and Stray Dogs

by Meagan Lucas

Review by Liz Merton

Copyright 2019

Mainstreet Rag Publishing Company

3 To-Be-Read Piles

Twitter brought this book to us. While I don't do social media, those of us who frequent the "bars and clubs of cyberspace" keep a lookout for likely "local" reads . . . and Songbirds and Stray Dogs showed up in someone's feed with a solid recomendation. 


Given Lucas's credentials (she's a Pushcart Prize nominee), and given the online buzz that swept the book our way, I had high hopes when I opened this novel of setbacks and start-overs. When I closed the book at the end, though, something just didn't click into place. Oh, it was an easy read, if slightly trope-ish in places (young woman finds herself pregnant with nowhere to go; former drug-involved small-time thug turns his life around), and it has an authentic Southern Gothic feel of poverty and alienation in North Carolina. But the ending left me unsatisfied. I can't say more without giving too much away. So check out the book (it's worth a look!), and see how you feel as you turn the final pages. Maybe the conclusion will ring differently for you.


Think pregnant girl struggling to survive, unlikely hero, and young kid who's lost his mom to drugs. Mix them all into small-town Tar Heel settings and add a dash of suspense as the bad guys start to close in. Then light it all on fire.   

Sailboat at Sunset
Hawaiki Rising

Hawaiki Rising

by Sam Low

Review by Liz Merton

Copyright 2013

Paperback Edition 2020

University of Hawaii Press

3+ To-Be-Read Piles

We didn't plan it this way, but all of the current Read Local (R) reviewers sail. Some more than others, but each of us enjoys a good day on the water. Given this shared love, and given our shared passion for books, we sometimes find ourselves passing books back and forth. In the case of Sam Low's Hawaiki Rising, I got my copy from Red Velvette, who picked the book up from Big Island BookBuyers last time she was in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. 

Continuing on, one might say, from the account in Hokule'a: The Way to Tahiti (1979), Low's Hawaiki Rising introduces readers to Hokule'a, a replica of a Polynesian voyaging canoe originally launched in 1975 to educate the world about Polynesian traditions, sailing, history, navigation, and culture. This historical craft took her crew from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976, with Micronesian navigator Pius Mau Piailug using only traditional navigational methods, rather than charts, compasses, or sextants (and obviously no GPS!). After this first voyage, she kept going, sailing far and wide, and ultimately circumnavigating the globe in the 2000s. 

Low's story gives readers a sense of the vessel's history, touches on the cultural issues in play, addresses the tragedy of surf legend Eddie Aikau disappearing at sea in an effort to seek help for the ship's crew after a capsize off the coast of Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands, and focuses on the role of navigator-apprentice Nainoa Thompson, who learned the traditional methods to navigate to Tahiti himself in 1980 . . . "to pull Hawaiki [the origin place/Polynesian homeland] from the sea." For anyone interested in history, sailing, Polynesia, or seafaring adventure, the book's content delivers. One just might wish the prose had flowed with a dash more "vigor" or verve. While the themes covered provide all the raw material necessary to craft a page turner, the finished product doesn't have that compelling pull I'm guessing most of us crave. 

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Stuck in Manistique

by Dennis Cuesta

Review by Red Velvette

Released 2018

4 To-Be-Read Piles

If you’ve never been to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Stuck in Manistique is a great introduction. Dennis Cuesta tells his story with crisp style and rich vocabulary. His wonderful imagery captures the beautiful scenery of Michigan and her lovable, quirky inhabitants. Yoopers are a special breed, and Cuesta writes about them as one who has experienced life in the UP firsthand.


Stuck in Manistique centers around a protagonist from Chicagoland who visits the town of Manistique to tie up the affairs of a recently deceased aunt, and he finds that she has been running a bed and breakfast. The pacing and cast of characters are somewhat reminiscent of an old 1940s film, with the characters coming in and out, and the protagonist poorly attempting some sleight of hand, much to the amusement of the reader. It’s a charming story with a twist at the end. Not as earthy as Escanaba in da Moonlight, another favorite played out in the UP, Cuesta’s story still captures the sense of being in Small Town, Michigan, to a T. He introduces his reader and his heroine to the problems of a “deer car,” as well as to Michigan’s favorite baked good, the pasty. The entire story happens around gorgeous Lake Michigan, and Cuesta describes this great lake perfectly. 


Not a heavy, earth-shattering read, Stuck in Manistique is one that will nonetheless stay with the reader. The writing is delightful, and the themes of family, perseverance, and fun are good ones. I highly recommend this book with four to-be-read piles! 

Rocky Outpost
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Storms of Malhado

by Maria Elena Sandovici

Review by Liz Merton

Copyright 2020

3- To-Be-Read Piles


With a great local feel that captures Galveston, its history, its heartbreaks, its mansions and old money and red-light districts, and its storms, Storms of Malhado offers “the Island’s” fans a tale of three women, three storms, and three histories of love and loss. Anyone could pick the book up and enjoy it, but for those who like a good Galveston ghost tour, for those who’ve heard of the ruin of The Great Storm of 1900, of Hurricane Carla in 1961, and of Hurricane Ike in 2008, the book offers something more.


Sandovici’s artistic vocation breathes extra life into her heroines’ dreams, and her passion for this beautiful, storm-blighted region rings deep and true. In places, the writing feels something like “unpolished” (there’s a lot of “bereft” around), and periods (and I don’t mean the punctuation mark) get mentioned often, but Storms of Malhado has that nice local-author, local-book feel that breaks up the hegemony of mass-appeal fiction in a to-be-read stack.

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Chelsea Green Publishing Company

Copyright 2005

3 To-Be-Read Piles


Good reviews from Rick Bass and from the Christian Science Monitor, and finding this book at the fantastic Galveston Bookshop, made me dig into this story. An account of Diane Wilson’s journey from shrimper to environmental activist, the work features colloquial prose (perhaps to a fault in places), deep exploration of environmental issues on the Texas Gulf Coast, and an “unredacted” presentation of the struggles Wilson (and those with whom she was involved) faced in the 1990s and early 2000s in exposing environmental abuses by Formosa Plastics. (Wilson continues to fight the company and advocate for environmental causes.)


Not being a huge Netflix person, I can’t personally confirm this statement, but I’m told that Wilson’s story appears as part of Dirty Money on Netflix.


While I’d recommended that people living on the Texas Coast check out the book, and while I appreciate Wilson’s open, unvarnished approach (she relates her lawyer’s burnout; tension between those with whom she worked; the crush of putting herself fully on the line with a hunger strike), I did feel the vernacular of this first-person narrative sometimes wearied me. For readers up for hardcore Coastal Bend prose, though, the book ticks boxes for environmentalism, feminism, and the -ism of passionate commitment to a cause.

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Mortal Sight

by Sandra

Fernandez Rhoads

Review by Rose Plum

In this young-adult urban fantasy series, creatives literally see the world differently than everyone else.


The author weaves art, music, and poetry (especially John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost) into the plot and character experiences. In the story, artists not only create art, but appreciate it, comment on it, and use it to make sense of their world. They need it more than normal too, because these artists are the only ones who see and fight the evil monsters waging war on humanity and creativity.


The main character, Cera, learns about this hidden reality after having a disturbing vision and failing to save a neighbor girl from being killed by a monster. After that, she wants nothing more than to destroy the monsters and save lives. She’s not alone—there are others like her fighting this war. But as she learns about this underground society and the monsters they fight, she finds many barriers to her goal, and she may even be adding to her friends’ danger.


This intriguing story pulled me in from the beginning and was very fun to read. The characters are relatable and have complicated relationships with each other that keep the interactions interesting throughout the book. And I love the role art plays in story world. I definitely want to read more.


This is Book 1 of The Colliding Line series. It definitely feels like an introduction to a series: not fully satisfying on its own because it’s only the beginning of a larger narrative. However, with how well this first book read, I trust that upcoming installments will not disappoint. Book 2 is not published at the time of this review, but I’ll be watching for it!


Four to-be-read piles out of five.

Palm Trees
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Big Happiness:

The Life and Death of a Modern Hawaiian Warrior

by Mark Panek

Review by Sage Webb

Let's start here: I'm glad I read this book. My undergrad degree is from Hawaii, and in law school, I did an internship out there for a summer. So I've spent a little bit of time in the islands. But Panek's exploration of the life and death of sumo contender Percy Kipapa gave me a new appreciation for the social struggles that continue to plague the land of aloha.

Panek, an English professor at the University of Hawii at Hilo, introduces readers to Percy Kipapa, a young man who sounds like he lived the aloha spirit and ventured to Japan to try to become a sumo star after a childhood in a rural district of Oahu. Sadly, injuries ended Kipapa's sumo career, and a return to the island sent him spiraling back into a world of meth abuse and violence that ultimately left him a victim of murder. 

In digging into issues of land development, urban planning, politics, and corruption, Panek links some of Hawaii's specific social struggles (drug abuse, economic issues, residential displacement) to land grabs and foreign economic control. He draws a connection between failed drug policies, aimed at marijuana, and the rise of meth. While Panek's relationship with Kipapa and his family undermines a truly objective analysis of the events at the heart of the book, this relationship also lends the work a certain authenticity. 

On the coming-up-short side of the equation, Panek strives to capture in dialogue local colloquialisms, "sumo speak," and word-for-word repetition of transcribed conversations. For me, these efforts worked great in small doses, but over the long haul, they inhibited a bit of the book's flow. The writing also lacks some of the zest and cohesion of big nonfiction titles like Empire of the Summer Moon, which explores the fall of the Comanches in a package that wraps up great organization of multiple themes with vivid descriptions and excellent pacing. On the objectivity issue, Panek's bias toward the prosecution during the murder trial comes across as completely understandable but (at least to this defense attorney) not always objectively grounded (in terms of things like critiquing strategy and presentation). 


For anyone interested in Hawaii, drug policy, criminal justice, or social justice, Big Happiness should probably be on the reading list. 


Three-plus or four-minus to-be-read piles! 

Big Happiness has a 2011 copyright date and 2012 publication date (listed on Amazon).

(Disclaimer: three Read Local (R) reviewers spent time at UHH, and one enjoyed a class with Panek, so Read Local (R) favors the Vulcans.)

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Blue on Blue

by Quentin S. Crisp

Review by Red Velvette

If you are looking for a wandering (perhaps meandering) story to read on the beach or on a plane, Blue on Blue by Quentin S. Crisp provides good mental floss. Crisp uses beautiful vocabulary and lovely imagery to tell a rambling story of an artist and his muse. Throw in some teleportation, sea monkeys, and an alternate universe, and you have a quick, quirky read. 

Set in an alternate 1950s, the story follows cartoonist Vincent as he creates his ideal pin-up girl (who is, of course, a redhead) on paper; and then suddenly, he meets her match in a real-live woman. When I first picked up this book, I thought this would be a re-telling of the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, but no. Blue on Blue is something else entirely. Crisp writes a sprawling tale of love found and lost. He seems to write for the pure enjoyment of writing, without too much care to develop the characters or move the storyline forward. While the writing showcases the richness of the English language, the author tends to wander from tangent to tangent. Fine literature this is not, but it’s an odd-ball story that offers some escapism for the reader.  If you need something to distract you while waiting out what I have dubbed The Autumn of the COVID, this is an unusual read worth a glance.


(We didn't place a "rating" on this selection because it kind of falls outside the usual rubrics. Ratings are, of course, subjective, and this book is a little quirkier than average.)